Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg

The Free Press advocacy group that fights for the people’s right to access technology and independent ownership of the media is throwing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a PR lifeline. He should grab it.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and YouTube have played major roles in crushing local media and stifling independent news voices. The Free Press offers an opportunity for social media giants to begin to make amends while earning priceless positive publicity.

The DC-based Free Press released a report, “Beyond Fixing Facebook,” on Feb. 26 that calls for a tax on targeted online advertising on the platforms of social media giants. Proceeds would support local and diverse independent news reporting.

It estimates that a two percent tax on targeted ads on online companies that earn more than $200M in annual digital ad revenues would result in a $1.8B windfall for local media.

Beyond Fixing Facebook

The Report says the promise of Facebook went bust. Facebook’s “vision of billions of people connecting to make the world better and the powerful more accountable hasn’t come to pass.

“Instead the company and other online platforms have divided people into groups that are often violently opposed to one another. They’ve hastened the spread of hate speech and propaganda and exploited people’s personal data and private information in myriad ways with little accountability, transparency or consequence.

“Throughout the past two decades, the platforms have transformed from disruptive startups to powerful conglomerates dedicated to swallowing up or undermining their competition.” Amen to that.

Since Facebook launched in 2004 and through 2016, the number of newspaper employees plunged from 375,000 to 173,000. And print advertising collapsed, forcing many papers to close shop.

The Report’s authors Craig Aaron, FP’s president, and Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy and communications, cite a 2018 University of North Carolina report about the emergence of “news deserts,” the 900 communities in the US that have lost their sole media outlet.

The FP likens its targeted tax to the carbon tax that countries slap on energy companies to clean up pollution. “The United States should impose a similar mechanism on targeted advertising to counteract how the platforms amplify content that’s polluting our civic discourse,” it said.

The group wants Congress to create a Public Interest Media Endowment that would distribute funds collected by the targeted advertising tax. The monies would support “local journalism, investigative reporting, media literacy, non-commercial social networks, civic-technology projects, and news and information for underserved communities.”

The FP proposal is pie-in-the-sky thinking. The Republican-controlled Senate backstopped by president Trump is never going to support a new tax or toss a bone to independent media.

Facebook, however, should buy into the plan. Both it and Google have already pledged to spend millions to support journalism initiatives.

The FP throws cold water on that proposal, saying that putting the fate of US journalism in the hands of Silicon Valley billionaires is a dangerous game.

It believes people would be better served by a publicly accountable system with a consistent funding mechanism. "Making the platforms pay their fair share to help clean up the mess they’ve created is a good way to start,” states the FP.

What do you say, Mark?